Down to Detail?

Some comments on devotions to the Saints

One of my Advent books this year is “Surprised by Hope” by N. T. Wright*. It is about the nature of the Christian hope after death (involving Resurrection rather than eternal disembodied bliss**) and how this affects how we live in the present. There’s a lot of food for thought in it: I found it well worth reading.

One thing, however, particularly drew my attention: his views on devotions to the Saints on pages 184-186. He comments that we should be very careful of the idea that the Saints function as friends at court: i.e. he says that every Christian has direct access to the Father through Christ and the Spirit, and therefore that asking someone else to ask for you is liable to negate that.  He also opposes the practice, though fairly gently, on the grounds that it is not Scriptural.

Despite being the sort of Anglo-Catholic who quite happily sings the Angelus and says the Rosary, and finds these practices of considerable value, I feel that the distortion Wright mentions – that of talking to the Saints rather than to God – can be a real problem in my personal prayer – something that I need to be cautious to guard against and address. As an Anglo-Catholic, I am sometimes concerned that the extent of the (often rather illogical) opposition to much of what we do puts us off watching these particular practices for distortions. Part of good Christian practice is keeping an eye on whether or not our devotions or lifestyle choices are actually of a nature that would be justified by the theology of those devotions or lifestyle choices, not because of deliberate hypocrisy, but because of the risk of drifting away from our moorings. Christian life requires a sensible level of vigilance against taking the normal for granted rather than being careful to check that it is in fact right when considered in the light of the sources of the faith.

More widely, it does seem to me that East and West have a very different attitude to praying to the Saints. Western Church devotions, particularly to Mary, still retain a bit of an overtone of “God is really angry and he’s out to get you, but these people he likes might be able to persuade him to do otherwise”, which I think it probably would be fair to say is completely inconsistent with real Christian teaching. Eastern Church devotions (or so I’ve felt when I’ve encountered them) suppose God and the Saints are on the same side. The work and prayers of the Saints in heaven are part of that amazing element of God’s redeeming love in which he invites us (his people) as fully as possible into what he is doing – into working with him at his work of redemption.

I think, therefore, it is a question of seeing the “friend at court” situation rather differently: I think that if we are hanging around in the outer lobby asking someone else to go in and ask for us, we are getting it wrong (this is Wright’s version). But the baby prince or princess may go into the court to their Father quite freely, but still struggle to articulate a request or to know what and how to ask, because they are still a baby, and because being so, they are still learning. Of course God knows. Of course the Holy Spirit prays in and for us without our being entirely conscious of what’s going on. But we are a family, and it makes sense in such cases, that an older brother or sister should also come to our aid, and that we should ask them to. Parents are often pleased when one sibling asks a favour for another, because it indicates that the children love each other. To use a completely different image, I think it can also be a question of placing an overwhelming issue in a box marked “needs to be dealt with by a senior colleague”, one, moreover, who can be assumed to have plenty of time!

I would not (I wish I could say, “of course”!) set my devotional preferences and ideas over and above what it says in Scripture – in that, if devotion to the Saints is incompatible with Scripture (as Wright, I think, suggests), I would hold that it is wrong, and if I became convinced of that I would desist. The details of Scriptural interpretation are not my subject, so the belief that the devotion to Saints is consistent with scripture*** is something that I have chiefly received from those who taught me the faith. However, while I would struggle to give a complete justification, particularly as some very complex questions arise, I am reasonably satisfied that it is correct in as far as I have been able to go into it.

However, it does seem worth being careful to acknowledge and observe the doctrinal parameters (e.g. God alone is to be worshipped; Christ is the only Redeemer; the Saints mustn’t be put between us and God as if we had no access to him) in the context of both devotion to the Saints and other ceremonial practices.

Wüger_Kreuzigung
Kreuzigung by Gabriel Wüger
Photo Credit:
http://www.engen.de/toparchiv
/ausstellung/beuron.htm

*Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007.  For a more detailed exposition of the same author on the nature of the Resurrection of Christ, see: N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003.

**Which is reasonably supposed to be a stage on the way, but not the final destination.

***I suggest e.g. https://www.catholic.com/tract/praying-to-the-saints for an explanation of the scriptural foundation of the practice.

 

Advertisements

Retaining the Spoon

The stutterry working memory of dyslexia, dyspraxia, and allied conditions

800px-A_small_cup_of_coffee Julius Schorzman
Photo from Wikimedia Commons; Julius Schorzman

It usually takes me at least two separate teaspoons to make a hot drink, and four or five to make a smoothie.

This is not because there is any real issue with using the same spoon for more than one task, though most smoothies do require two clean spoons, as it is a bit of a problem to put the same spoon in both yogurt and cocoa, or similar wet/dry ingredient pairs. But there isn’t any culinary need to use another two spoons to scrape the blender and blending jug, or to use different spoons to spoon coffee into a cup and to stir it in.

The excessive spoon numbers happen because I have a memory that cannot retain continuously the information that the spoon needs to be kept for reuse*. This results in almost all spoons, once they have been used once, being tidied instantly into the washing up, where they are either unidentifiable, or end up covered in tomato soup or dirty washing water, and can’t be used without being scrubbed. Very occasionally, by chance or with an effort of extreme concentration, I remember to keep one, but it is the exception, not the rule.

A stutterry memory affects doing the process, but often does not affect understanding it. I am able to describe what efficient spoon use requires: take one spoon and use it for the yogurt, and another for dry ingredients (if any), starting with things like seeds that will not adhere to the spoon as powders will. Put one spoon in the washing up and retain the other for scraping the utensils. Blend ingredients. Scrape off blender with spoon and rinse. Pour smoothie into cup and scrape out jug with same spoon.

However, I cannot, while actually doing it, retain this continuously in my memory. The habit of dropping used utensils (bar the butter knife) straight into their washing tub, is too strong.

I usually, though not always, remember to put all the ingredients in before blending the mixture, but that is not something one has to retain in one’s mind continuously: it is enough to come back to it a couple of fairly random times as one goes. The problem with spoons is that if I don’t remember all the time not to put them in the washing up, I generally do put them there, and the process of having put them there is normally irreversible – unlike the process of having failed to put a banana in at the usual point in the recipe.

Making a smoothie is about as complex a food preparation task as I normally attempt in everyday life**, for though it is moderately difficult in terms of having to gather a lot of ingredients together, it is fairly indifferent to the order in which you mix them (“necessary but not deducible order” being one of my worst Achilles’ heels) and it is usually easy to see what I have put in and what I haven’t. Also, as I do it every day, I can do most of the process without thinking.

Most people are absent minded occasionally. Having a life-impacting problem is not the result of doing this sort of thing, but of trying to live with the fact that one does it ninety-five percent of the time, rather than five percent of the time. At that level, retaining adequate functionality becomes difficult.

Apart from the straightforward practical difficulties it causes in doing a lot of normal and necessary tasks, this sort of memory difficulty can cause a lot of social friction, for example, when someone else is doing the washing up and has asked you to reuse the spoon to make less work (or in dozens of similar housework, classroom, or work tasks), as it is often hard for people to understand why there is such a problem with doing in practice what someone often has no problem recalling in theory. While I would contend that it is always appropriate to look for ways around (like everyone washing up the teaspoons they’ve used themselves) when it is causing someone else real difficulties, it is necessary to start looking for a solution from a position that accepts the fact that “just trying a bit harder” isn’t going to alter the erratic working or not working of the brain!

I am coming to accept that things like efficiency with the reuse of spoons in the kitchen are beyond me. Fortunately, I have plenty of spare teaspoons, I do my own washing up when I haven’t guests, and the environmental effects of washing up a few extra teaspoons are hopefully not extreme.

While the theoretical effects of dyslexia and related conditions on short term memory are well known, the practical results in everyday tasks are harder to comprehend or anticipate. This type of rather intangible absent-mindedness is, I think, one of the main effects.

 

 

*I suppose this is what is normally referred to as processing, but I am not an expert on the technical ins and outs of what the brain is doing and not doing. There is an odd paradox in our culture in that people tend to assume that the experience resulting from a disability is only real if it has a known technical explanation, which would require the explanation to exist prior to the existence of the thing it is trying to explain! The experience is fundamental; the explanation is an explanation of what is causing the experience.

**The limitation results from of stamina management needs in the context of particular lifestyle choices and external practical constrains, not from the literal impossibility of doing more complex tasks.

 

Cherry Foster

Confession and Despair

A greater focus on sin in our practice may be a better remedy for loss of hope in redemption, than trying to trivialise or marginalise evil.

 

I am used to considering sacramental confession* an indispensable part of my ordinary practice, but having recently attended a weekend for young adults at which confession was repeatedly advocated by both the group leaders and local clergy, in a way that clearly assumed most people didn’t take it for granted, I ended up reflecting on why I practice as I do, particularly as my impression is that it is probably not the conventional response to the type of spiritual difficulty for which I ended up turning to it.

I have always been afflicted with continuous temptations to despair: that is, to deny the possibility of salvation, something that makes Christian life and faith impossible, as well as being obviously untrue when considered in the light of salvation history. Voluntarily assented to, it is therefore a serious sin (though it is important to distinguish between an unfortunate state of mind and voluntary assent). I have found that the only thing which has any effect in dealing with this tendency is regular and frequent confession.

My tendency to despair was not the result of growing up with a fire and brimstone attitude that emphasises judgement to the exclusion of grace. I think it is easy to see how that can lead to despair in many people as Christian ethics unashamedly asks too much for human nature: real holiness of life is only possible through a reliance on God’s grace. Instead, I grew up with what I tend to refer to as a cheap grace attitude, in which both sin and judgement were watered down as much as possible in the liturgy. There was a fashion (possibly there still is) for softening or removing mentions of sin in the liturgy**. The effect was rather like being endlessly told how effective and wonderful a cure had been produced for chapped hands, while I knew I was dying of multiple skin cancers on which it would presumably have no effect.

It was only when I started to use Common Prayer – which doesn’t mince its words when it comes to sin – that I started to realise that the Redemption God had offered in Christ was actually sufficient to deal with the real extent of the things I did wrong, and ultimately, that he was able to deal with and redeem the underlying flaws in humanity which produce and reproduce evil. Whoever wrote the general confessions in Common Prayer still thought they would be forgiven, and still thought that God could bring them to holiness of life, despite the fact that they had “erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep” and “justly incurred his wrath” through manifold sins and wickedness. Even so, this emphasis wasn’t enough to counter my mind-set on its own, and I eventually, following the logic of the Common Prayer tradition*** and the general exhortations of traditional Anglo-Catholic clergy, resorted to Sacramental Confession. It was the result of coming to an intellectual conclusion as to what ought to help which I didn’t trust emotionally, and I was rather taken aback by how much difference it made.

I still feel that the whole thing is substantially counter-intuitive, perhaps precisely because what one is doing is giving God a window through which to act, and what God does with that space is not reducible to normal human experience. I still struggle with the process even in the context of extreme familiarity. I find that all spiritual tensions, including those that are not obviously to do with unethical conduct or acting wrongly towards God, end up in the confessional in some way.

However, despite the difficulty of saying what you have done wrong to someone else, it is very reassuring merely on the human level to drag things out into the light and speak of them, in a safe environment and before someone who is there to assist. It is a way of bringing one’s whole life into the reality of the costly but worthwhile joy of Christian living: while in theory it would be possible to examine individual actions for a general confession, regularly and reliably, and I’m sure some people do, I find it practically impossible as a discipline. It is too easy to stop bothering, and as I don’t tend to find a general absolution enough to counter the natural tendencies of my heart and mind, I tend to find it too frightening to examine my conscience much in this way. My tendency to despair is pernicious enough that any attempt to examine tends to increase the conscious temptation to despair, and I need the process of the sacrament to deal with that – which it does, in a way that trying to ignore the temptation cannot. The sacraments open us up to God’s power to help us: as he does not impose himself on us, I find it easy to underestimate the extent of the power he actually has over the human heart and mind, once I start assenting to his aid by the series of actions which confession involves.

Obviously I can’t speak about the experience or use of confession in the context of having a different temperament, but, despite the fact that focusing on sin rather than ignoring it is difficult when inclined to despair and despondency, I have found the process extremely helpful as a counter to those very things, and would recommend it as a remedy for them, as well as in the context of a general deepening of Christian practice.

 

Champaigne_shepherd
The Good Shepherd by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

*Confession, also known as “auricular confession”, “the sacrament of confession”, “sacramental confession”, “the sacrament of reconciliation”, and probably quite a few other things, is the practice of seeking the mercy of God through the specific confession of actual sins to (under normal circumstances) an ordained priest.

**I came to the conclusion as far as liturgy is concerned, that instead of taking out or watering down mentions of sin, they should be balanced with equal space spent emphasising God’s mercy and grace to all who desire repentance. While in many ways I think the Common Prayer general confessions are good, I think they can be justly criticised in several ways, including that the general confession specified for the Communion service emphasises a particular emotional response to sin “the burden of them is intolerable” which is not in fact necessary to sincere repentance. The inclination or disinclination of temperament to be emotional about guilt is morally and spiritually neutral: it is what is done with either that matters.

***Which says that you should make a specific confession to a priest and seek absolution and counsel, if private prayer does not produce a state of mind in which it is possible to come peacefully and faithfully to Communion. (The Book of Common Prayer; Oxford University Press; page 304-305 – i.e. at the end of the first exhortation printed between the intercessions and the general confession of the Communion service). What exactly it was intended to encourage or discourage in its historical context remains unclear to me, though I think it is sufficient (combined with the comments in the instructions for the visitation of the sick [same work, page 379]) to be sure that there is nothing un-Anglican about advocating auricular confession. I don’t suppose the prayer book or articles to be infallible, but I think it is reasonable to place the burden of proof on those who are disagreeing with them rather than on those who are agreeing, when discussing these things within the Anglican tradition.

 

Cherry Foster

Gender Inclusive Language and Other Shades of Meaning

A week or so ago I downloaded the music and words of the carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” from a website (it is the wrong time of year, but there were reasons for looking for something very familiar). Trying to sing it through, I realised that someone had changed the line “pleased as man with man to dwell” into “pleased as flesh with flesh to dwell”.

Whatever we choose to do with modern liturgy – and where we have our liturgy in modern English, it would be logical to follow normal modern grammatical conventions – I do in fact dislike people meddling with traditional words to try to make them conform to these modern conventions.

It usually involves a diminishing of the quality of the poetry*, and in any case, the older English grammatical convention of male and mixed pronouns being the same means that in actual fact, an abstract “he” or “man” is properly speaking inclusive and not gender-specific.

I realise that this convention can become a social problem if there is too strong a cultural tendency to read “male” instead of “mixed” in cases of ambiguity, and I realise that awareness of the grammatical change goes along with particular types of educational and cultural background, so I would not suggest that it was wrong in every single pastoral circumstance to change old words to conform to the modern conventions, though I’d love to see it done less.

However, I think there is a worse spanner in the inclusive language works than the mere fact that which language is gender-specific or inclusive is fluid. And that is that the words which we use instead of the traditional words often have different meanings or implications which can matter.

For example, I have a line in a Good Friday poem that reads:

“Tonight thou** sleepst, and no man can awaken thee”

Could it not with equal logic follow modern gender-inclusive conventions and read:

“Tonight thou sleepst, and no one can awaken thee”?

I don’t think there is much to choose between the poetic quality of the two lines.

However, the word “man” and the word “one” don’t have the same implications. To use the word “man” – “human being, mortal” – emphasises the limits of human power and the fact of human subjection to death. The word “one” which means “person” is problematic in this context, as it would include God***, who is not subject to death, and can – and does – raise the dead. It would be positively daft to worry about that implication of the word “one” when writing an essay on childcare in medieval India or an advertising poster for an awards ceremony, but in religious poetry, the particular connotations of mortality and limitation that are attached to the word “man” (and are not attached to any of the substitutes) are often valuable.

A similar problem accrues to using “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” for “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”****. The two phrases do not mean the same thing on levels that go far deeper than mere gender. The three persons have been depersonalised into functions, and into functions the referent of which is the creation rather than the other persons. We are referring not to God as he is (for all we don’t understand “as he is”) but to the Trinity as we see what it has done. Using such language, for whatever reason, seems to erode the notion of personal relationship with a person in favour of a distant, abstract Deist God. To refer continuously to one’s mother or father or brother or sister or husband or wife as “the electrician” would diminish the relationship!

I suppose – though in a lesser way – that a depersonalising implication is part of the reason why I am disconcerted by the change from “man” to “flesh” in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. “Flesh”, like “man” and “one” has its own implications and emphasises. Granted these things are rather personal, but I feel that “man with man” emphasises God relating to us by becoming what we are, while “flesh with flesh” emphasises only his having become what we are.

I don’t want to say that inclusive language should not be a consideration or concern, and I am not arguing that those who have wanted to promote the modern grammatical convention of male/female/mixed (as opposed to the traditional male-or-mixed/female) have necessarily been wrong in general. But I think it would also be good to be careful of ignoring all other considerations of meaning or emphasis or quality or integrity on the grounds that there have been good reasons for the grammatical convention to change in many circumstances.

 

 

 

* For example, in that case the assonance “ea-a-a” has been altered by the change to “ea-a-e”, which has a completely different effect, and overall, I would say that the increase in the number of “e” sounds in those two lines is a loss not a gain.

**   I tend to write religious poetry in a traditional idiom because, being used to Common Prayer, it is how I naturally pray.

*** And, presumably, the angels.

****I do also agree with the theological objections to using gender neutral or feminine language for God (possibly excepting the third person of the Trinity): that is, I do believe that being faithful to the prayer language of scripture, and the manner in which God has revealed he should be spoken of and addressed, should take precedence over any other preference, feeling, or cultural norm. While feminine images are sometimes used of “God” in scripture, feminine forms of address or reference never are.

I would also protest that I personally value using masculine language for God, because the bridal analogy of fulfilment is particularly significant for me: not all women feel that we are diminished rather than enhanced by the fact that God choses to reveal himself in masculine rather than feminine language. I am as keen spiritually and emotionally as I am technically to preserve masculine language for God, as it is part of the way I comprehend Theosis and union with God.

However, these things, though thoroughly relevant to this particular aspect of the inclusive language debate, are beside the point I was trying to make.

 

Cherry Foster

Eustace and a (probable) Plot

Some ramblings about C. S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”

(N.B. Probably contains spoilers)

 

I have just finished reading – again – C. S. Lewis’s book “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” – the fifth Narnia Chronicle, if one takes them in the story world’s chronology rather than in the order in which they were written.

I’m never really quite sure what I think of it. There is something in all the Narnia Chronicles which leads me to read and reread them over and over. But when I initially read this particular one, I didn’t really think much of it – I felt it had no plot.

I’ve revised that particular opinion since: the plot can be readily summarised, but the nature of the quest involved (seeking seven different people who turn out to be in five different places) is sufficiently diffuse that, taken with the presence of the moral underpinnings (rarely obtrusive but always important), the adventures sometimes seem to have no relation whatever to each other, but that they happen on the same journey and during the same task. However, they are nicely varied and mostly wonderful fun – I don’t think I’ve ever got bored in the process of reading it due to feeling it was repetitive – and the nature of the voyage itself, where to fulfil the quest they have to go “towards Aslan’s country behind the sunrise”, has a considerable significance in the world’s set up, which I think holds things together more than I initially realised.

While I entirely enter into the way Edmund is set up as rather nasty at the beginning of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, I have mixed feelings about Eustace as he is described by the author at the beginning of this book. Granted, the subculture Eustace is described as coming from is not one I’m familiar with, and I have no way of considering whether or not I’d agree with its criticism. And certainly Eustace does plenty of things he shouldn’t. However, I have a certain amount of automatic empathy with him because I was also a child who was much criticised for preferring books of information to stories – I didn’t enjoy stories much until I was nine or ten! There isn’t an obvious logical reason to assume the bad character of a child because they prefer information to imagination and artistry at a particular stage of their development. However, in Eustace’s case it seems reasonably likely to be shorthand for something else that is going on, which I don’t recognise.

I also think Eustace gets unfairly treated in certain places. For example: “Eustace was crying harder than any boy of his age has a right to cry when nothing worse has happened to him than a wetting.” Laying aside changes in gender expectations, it just isn’t an accurate description of events. Eustace was standing in the guest bedroom of his parents’ house, when a picture began to behave oddly, and then fairly suddenly he found himself washed into the middle of a sea. I don’t think describing that as though he had merely tripped over and fallen into a fountain while on a walk in the local park makes sense.

Interestingly, later in the book, after he starts improving, more allowance is given to the fact he hasn’t any experience of “adventures”. As Eustace improves fairly early on in the book, feeling the early criticisms of him are a bit heavy-handed doesn’t affect enjoyment of that much of the story.

I also feel that a better reason for them sailing into the unknown “darkness” could have been found than the fact that Reepicheep had never heard the proverb “The better part of valour is discretion”! I love the Quixotic mouse – who, ironically, is right often enough despite his recklessness – but I still feel the plot limps slightly here, in that the motivation for risking lives in the way (King) Caspian does isn’t adequate. The other characters don’t usually have the same “death-and-glory” mind-set as Reepicheep, and usually check his excesses rather than joining in with them. Again, it seems rather arbitrary that the enchantment of the three Lords should be broken at the end by one member of the company continuing on into Aslan’s country; there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two things. Though these things don’t matter very much, I’m sure they contributed to my initial impression that the book lacked a plot, and I think it would be raised from good to excellent, by more coherence in these places, particularly in the second (given the significance of Aslan in the world’s set up). This may be a matter of purely personal taste: where coherence and consistency matter and where they don’t in fiction is hardly a straightforward issue.

Though I haven’t done a “how-does-the-author-use-language-to-create-this-effect” analysis on the prose style of each section, one of the things that struck me on this last reading was the extent to which C. S. Lewis creates different atmospheres through the book – the tension and fear of the dark island and the sea serpent, the apparent normality of the island of the voice, the dreamy calmness of the last sea at the end of the world, the almost oppressive wildness of some of the uninhabited islands.  It is extremely well written from the technical point of view.

There is a lot of morality, spirituality, and metaphysics in the book overall, something I always enjoy, but if – like “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – it is intended to be built around an analogy of some type, rather than being a series of adventures which make moral and spiritual points, I haven’t spotted it yet (or read an introduction/commentary which points it out).

Perhaps part of the reason I never really determine what I think of it is that while it is in itself an excellent book, I miss in it overall the raw power and mythological depth of some of the other books in the series (particularly “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and “The Last Battle”). It is an enjoyable read, with a lot of depth and thoughtfulness, but it isn’t really the same type of book.

 

 

*Primary school: ages four to eleven in the English school system.

 

Cherry Foster

Opposites

If Elbereth and Melkor play at chess,

Which has the better skill avails them not.

Her freemen, wilful, do obey her less,

His slaves will at his bidding stand and rot.

And often she will seem to lose a turn

To reach her hand to some unhappy pawn,

Which he lets die, unyielding and more stern,

That, by the midgame, she is the more worn

While he laughs still. And then, with suddenness

Her freemen strong, her pawns preserved and crowned,

Work where she aids not, while his carelessness

Makes no abandoned slave to stand their ground.

Defeated, darkened, Melkor leaves the throng;

Her stars, though dimmed, yet undefiled shine on.

 

 

DSCN0148 (3)

 

Cherry Foster

Welcoming Children and Valuing Silence

Can Churches welcome young children and value silence, or does one or the other have to be sacrificed?  Here I suggest that silence in church matters immensely – but that the right way to achieve it is to invest in and provide for children and their parents.

It is a fact increasingly acknowledged – indeed, I would be surprised to find anyone disputing it – that it is important to welcome young children into our Church communities. They are real and full members of the community and congregation to which they belong. Church community should be there for everyone at every stage of their lives, whether two, twenty-three, forty-four or ninety-five.

However, I have become thoroughly disillusioned with the normal means of welcome in many churches, which approximates to “let babies and young children cry/play/run about during church services and never mind about the noise”.

There are two reasons for feeling that this isn’t a good approach. The first is that I don’t have the impression that it works well for most young families, and it is not inclusive in the way that word would usually be meant. Inclusivity implies allowing different people to join in in a meaningful way. But in general neither the children (who are doing something unrelated in an environment not set up for them) nor the parents (who are fully occupied in looking after the children) are being enabled to join in with worship.

The second reason is that it is important that people can come to church and find in the liturgy and the worshipping space the conditions that are optimal for encountering God. While people vary enormously in their personal distractibility and in the extent of the role silence* has in their spiritual journey, outward stillness and silence, and an environment that promotes attentiveness, are well known to be important aspects of creating a space that facilitates encountering God. For everyone’s sake (including that of the children when they are slightly older and their needs change) it is important not to set these considerations aside. Simply tolerating noise and disruption – whether from young children (who have every excuse), or from adults chattering about the weather (who probably don’t) – doesn’t promote people’s capacity to use the liturgy for its proper purpose, and therefore doesn’t assist the church in fulfilling its primary role (indeed, its entire reason for being) of bringing people to God.

This creates an extremely complex pastoral and practical challenge, which hardly admits of a single, complete solution that will work in every community or for every child regardless of age or temperament, and it seems likely that the extent of the challenge is why “play-and-noise” has gained so much prevalence.

Here are some pick-and-mix suggestions for ways in which real inclusivity and real silence might both be valued and protected. None are supposed to be stand-alone solutions – indeed, a combination of whichever approaches are possible in a particular community is probably most likely to be successful.

1. Take the children out for Sunday School throughout the whole of the main Sunday morning Eucharist. A good start where possible; the usual challenges are finding ways of providing for children of all ages, and for the worship of the adult volunteers.  The children may also need support to make the transition to attending the service when they are ready.

2. Take the children out for age-appropriate activities through the sermon, prayers, and intercessions. This allows the adult volunteers to join in with the most essential parts of worship, and the children to get used to being in church, while taking them out of the least accessible part of the service, and reducing the length of time they are coping with “adult” church.  This can also be used as a transitional stage – full Sunday School to age six or so, and then “half” Sunday School for a few years after that.

3. Provide a fully enclosed (adequately soundproofed) room with windows into the church, and equip it as a children’s chapel. This allows children to attend an ordinary service and have a space where they can be children, joining in as they become ready, with both maximum silence elsewhere in the worshiping space and minimal separation of the children and their carers from it. It potentially makes provision for all ages and for every service in the year, which is usually impossible with Sunday school provisions. Though less ideal, CCTV and speakers could be used instead of windows, if good quality and well maintained.  This type of provision is likely to be more effective for parents if effort is put into maintaining the atmosphere within the children’s chapel as that of a family service, rather than a creche, perhaps by asking for non-parent volunteers to take it in turns to sit with the families in the children’s space during services.

4. Run children’s worship/activities at a time other than the main Sunday Eucharist, and involve non-churchgoing volunteers with babysitting on Sunday morning. Some local areas may have people – older youth looking for community service opportunities, or lonely single people – who would be delighted to spend their Sunday morning playing with children and joining the congregation for after-church socialising. Involving non-churchgoers in the social aspects of the church community may also be a means of evangelisation.

5. Designate at least one weekday/low Sunday Eucharist as silent, and look for babysitting volunteers inside or outside the congregation if there are parents who want to attend. It may be easier to find volunteers at another time of week than Sunday morning. And the parents of pre-school children are likely to be among those who find it most difficult to find time and space for silence and prayer, and would most gain from being able to access a dedicated space for it.

6. Preserve a period of dedicated silence after the Sunday Eucharist/other services. Perhaps in the context of exposition**. This is dependent on having a separate social space, to which both adults and children can withdraw to play or talk. (Making the social space work for both children and adults is a different aspect of holistic welcoming). This is a bit of a side-step, as it doesn’t provide for anyone during the liturgy itself, but it may be a helpful compromise in a church community where there are no resources to provide more fully for the children during the service.

7. The above, with the addition of a “babysitter” at after church socialising. In the case of arranging for “after-church silence” running concurrently to the start of “after-church socialising”, having a rota of non-parents to watch over children during socialising would allow parents to join in with the after-church silence too.

8. Have worship buddies to support parents during the service so there is always at least one adult per child. My perception would be that it isn’t very difficult to assist a child who is ready to join in to do things like following the service sheet and finding the right hymns, but it is not easy to do if you are also trying to care for an infant. Children who are just becoming ready to join in in an “adult” way may be among those most distracted from worship by a younger child playing close by: finding ways in which they can be moved a little way away from younger siblings may be of help to them.

9. Ask for older parent mentors to take a family with young children under their wing. Older churchgoing parents may be able to give a lot of advice and encouragement regarding what they found helped in integrating their own children, and generally be able to make sure that the parents don’t feel isolated in the worshipping community. This is a slightly different type of buddy system, and could in theory also be offered to other groups of people who find it challenging to come to church. Offering these things formally (rather than assuming they will happen naturally) helps to make sure people “belong” whether they find it easy to fit in socially or not.

10. Greet children at the door with a children’s service book and a Sunday School activities sheet. This is hardly a one-size-fits-all solution, as children are delightfully individual in their needs and preferences, but it acknowledges the need of children for age-appropriate material, and it encourages them to be quietly occupied with something relevant. It may also help send the message that families are welcome and considered. Probably most useful to churches who don’t currently have child-congregation-members, but do have visiting children from time to time.

11. Provide teaching material to the parents, which they can use to help their children engage. This depends a bit on local demographics, as it is most likely to be useful to parents who are well educated, but in subjects other than theology. The capacity of the parents to discuss different aspects of the service – the days’ readings, or some part of the Eucharistic prayer, or the particular festival of the day – with their children is likely to be helpful in enabling the children to engage as fully as possible as they become ready.

 

Albrecht_Altdorfer_-_The_Adoration_of_the_Magi_-_Städel
Detail from Albrecht Aldorfer’s “The Adoration of the Magi.”  Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

 

*“Silence” in this context, is shorthand for both actual silence – that is the absence of any noise at all – and for the silence of liturgical worship, in which there is no noise going on except the words and/or music of the liturgy.

These two things can be significantly different in terms of the role they play in facilitating prayer, but the pastoral issue is similar in both cases. It may sometimes be a problem, though, if the presence of one type of silence is considered a complete substitute for the presence of the other.

** This is a Roman-Catholic/Anglo-Catholic practice in which the Consecrated Bread of the Eucharist is placed on the altar for adoration.

 

Cherry Foster